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The following are my go-to hacks for increasing cognitive function, reducing stress, losing fat, increasing productivity and more.

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TOP 10 BIOHACKS:

1. HACKING YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM

When you suffer from stress (as most people do), it’s too hard to focus and be productive and too easy to have recurring irrational thoughts. It can also cause poor judgment and memory problems, and that’s certainly not Bulletproof. A good way to combat stress is to use meditation and breathing exercises.

When you meditate, you practice the art of mindfulness, which allows you to choose which thoughts you want to focus on. It enables you to choose how you respond to your feelings instead of blinding reacting to them. Different ways of meditating include counting, mantras, mindfulness, positive self-talk, and controlled breathing exercises.

With controlled breathing, you want to breathe from your diaphragm, not your chest.  Pull the air in through your nose all the way down into your belly, then exhale with your stomach first, using your diaphragm to push the air out of your lungs. Only your stomach should move, not your chest. The inhale should be a long, continuous breath, followed by a pause before exhaling, and then another pause before taking the next breath. This slow, steady breathing can help control your heart rate and allow your mind to relax.

HEART RATE VARIABILITY TRAINING

When you are relaxed, you have a rhythmic heart rate variability, or the amount of time between each beat. Under stress, your body resorts to a fixed, inflexible rhythm.  HeartMath technologies (like the emWave2 or the Inner Balance™ Sensor) use a tiny sensor to calculate your heart rate variability and warns you that you are showing signs of stress (perhaps before you even realize it). The sensor guides you to take deep breaths every five seconds as you listen to music or meditate to resume relaxed heart rate variability. By warning you that you are getting stressed, and teaching you to prevent stress before it starts, you can stay more focused, controlled, and in better moods.

2. THE BULLETPROOF DIET

Most diets promise to get you thin, but they do this to the detriment of your mental performance. The Bulletproof Diet, on the other hand, was not only designed to give you a lean, healthy body, but also to get you a high-functioning brain.  How does this work, exactly?

ELIMINATING TOXINS THAT ROB YOUR PERFORMANCE

The Bulletproof Diet ranks food on a scale from “Bulletproof” to “Toxic.” And it’s essential for healthy brain function to avoid the performance-robbing toxins found in many crops including grains, vegetables, and even coffee. These plants themselves (like the natural pesticides found on spinach and kale) or get released by mold growing on the plant, which is a known problem in the agricultural industry. These toxins give you brain fog that places a huge burden on your brain’s ability to perform at the level you want it to.

STOP DEPENDING ON SUGAR FOR FUEL AND JUMPSTART KETOSIS

When you follow the Bulletproof Diet, you eat a restricted amount of carbohydrates, which puts you into ketosis. This means that your liver converts the fats you eat into an energy source called ketones so that you no longer need carbohydrates to function. This is great for your brain because your brain prefers ketones to perform certain jobs. In fact, even if your liver isn’t producing ketones, your brain will make some on its own to maintain the health of synapses. Ketones are a more efficient source of energy for your brain than sugars are, and if your brain is working more efficiently, so is everything you do.

DRINKING BULLETPROOF® COFFEE IN THE MORNING

The Bulletproof Diet isn’t just your typical low-carb diet that helps you move slowly towards ketosis. A staple of the diet, Bulletproof® Coffee, can kick you into ketosis much faster than you could get there on your own.  The medium-chain fatty acids in Upgraded XCT Oil and Brain Octane Oil can also aid in your ketone production. On top of that, you’ve got the added stimulant benefits of the caffeine and diterpenes in coffee.

GOING GLUTEN-FREE

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the negative health effects of gluten. Gluten can cause learning problems, focus issues, and memory malfunction. Gluten causes your body to elevate levels of inflammation, particularly by forming cytokines, proteins that are found in patients with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and autism — all neurological diseases.

LIMITING HISTAMINES

The Bulletproof Diet is full of foods with low histamine levels, which have more of an impact on you than just causing your seasonal allergy issues.  Histamines are a neurotransmitter, which means they send messages between your body and your brain.  High histamine levels can cause headaches, sleep issues, and anxiety, and you can get histamines not just from your allergies, but also through food — particularly aged, smoked, or cured foods.  Since the Bulletproof Diet advocates fresh meat, eggs, and produce — all low-histamine foods — it can help protect you from these problems.

EATING MORE HEALTHY FATS

Your brain is mostly made up of saturated fats and cholesterol, which is why people supplement with DHA and EPA (both fatty acids) to support brain health with supplements like Krill Oil. Your mind uses fat to recover and repair itself, resulting in improved memory, increased cognitive skills, and better moods.  Bulletproof’s high-fat diet (up to 70% of daily calories) supports a Bulletproof body and a Bulletproof mind.

3. BULLETPROOF INTERMITTENT FASTING

Bulletproof intermittent fasting will help you feel a buzz while your body stays in ketosis (fat burning mode) with Bulletproof Coffee and Brain Octane.

4. GRATITUDE AND FORGIVENESS

Taking a few minutes a day to do a gratitude and forgiveness exercise can be unbelievably beneficial. In fact, it’s probably the most powerful biohack ever. Either stop everything you’re doing and consider what you are grateful for, or write your thoughts about gratitude and forgiveness down in a journal (like The 5-Minute Journal). By doing this, you can increase your happiness, recover more easily from stress (I mean, how much stress do you carry around from your anger and hurt?), and become more effective at work. In fact, gratitude exercises are shown to increase decision-making abilities and encourage productivity. It also makes you generally more likable.

5. NEUROFEEDBACK TECHNIQUES

Neurofeedback is when you re-teach your brain how to respond to different emotions.  Cool, right?  You have EEG sensors placed all over your scalp, and monitor your brainwaves in different areas.  Then you play a “video game” with your brain, using your brain electricity to make the game progress.  The more positive brain activity, the faster the game goes (positive reinforcement), and the more undesirable brain activity, the slower the game goes.  Eventually, this cycle of positive and negative reinforcement re-teaches the brain which brain waves are desirable, so that they can replace your previous negative responses to stressors.

40 Years of Zen is an intensive 7-day neurofeedback program that puts you in the same mindstate as advanced (we’re talking 20 to 40 years) Zen practitioners.  It takes 7 very long, very full days of monitoring and retraining your brain at a facility dedicated solely to this process, but it can increase your IQ by an average of 12 points, and increase creativity by an average of 50%, and it’s hands-down the fastest, most efficient way to reap the benefits of neurofeedback.

6. HACK YOUR SLEEP

You know how groggy you feel the next day when you barely get any sleep during the night? It’s not just because you want sleep; it’s because your brain needs quality sleep to function properly. When you sleep, it gives your brain a chance to repair the neurons that you exhaust during the day while you’re active. It also gives your brain time to exercise the connections between your neurons. In fact, a recurrent lack of sleep may cause loss of brain cells – the last thing you want when you’re trying to be Bulletproof.

GOOD SUN EXPOSURE AND A HEALTHY CIRCADIAN RHYTHM

Did you know that people whose offices have windows get better sleep than those who work in windowless workspaces?  That’s because getting enough sun exposure every day keeps your body’s clock – or circadian rhythm – on point.  Sunlight tells your body to postpone making melatonin – the hormone that makes you tired and helps you sleep.  So it’s a great idea to get some sun in the morning if you can, but if you’re rushing to get to work and don’t have time to take a leisurely walk, you can take your vitamin D supplements in the morning instead.  Since sunlight makes your body produce vitamin D, which put offs melatonin production, taking a morning dose of the vitamin may make your body feel like you’ve been outside.  (For this reason, you want to avoid taking your vitamin D at night, which can interfere with sleep).

HOW TO HACK YOUR SLEEP

Eight hours of quality sleep can increase your ability to tackle complex problems by 50%.  So how do you get that kind of sleep?  First, invest in Sleep Cycle, a simple iPhone app that tracks the quality of your sleep, just by placing your phone on your bed!

After you’ve done that, install F.lux on your computer, which changes the light from your computer screen to adjust for the time of day, helping your brain prepare for sleep even when you use your computer at night (that said, you want to avoid bright lights like the TV for an hour before bed).  You should also avoid exercising for at least two hours before bed.

7. TAKING SMART DRUGS AND NOOTROPICS

Nootropics, or “smart drugs,” are some of my favorite hacks. These substances increase your brain’s performance – you remember more, learn better, concentrate more fully, and can even increase your intelligence. These drugs are also neuroprotective, so they protect your brain from injury (unlike amphetamine-derived stimulants like Adderall).

VITAMINS AND NUTRIENTS

But if smart drugs aren’t your thing, you can always boost your mental performance with nutrients, such as Magnesium, vitamin D, Krill Oil, Turmeric, and vitamin B.

  • Magnesium can actually reverse the effects of stress on your brain, and can increase your memory and cognitive function.  Magnesium is also vital to ATP production, so low magnesium means low brain energy, which isn’t Bulletproof!
  • Vitamin D is also a great supplement for your brain.  It helps protect you from free radical damage, which can decrease your cognitive performance.
  • Krill oil, which is packed with DHA, EPA and Astaxanthin, keeps the neurons in your brain communicating freely.  Better communication in your nervous system obviously means that you’re going to be smarter, faster, and better.
  • Turmeric is a spice frequently used in Indian food. It contains curcumin, which is great for your brain.  Curcumin is an antioxidant that travels easily from your blood to your brain, and like vitamin D, it helps protect your brain from free radical damage.
  • B Vitamins fight off the amino acid homocysteine, which increases brain shrinkage and may lead to Alzheimer’s. In fact, it seems that vitamin B may be able to decrease brain shrinkage by up to 90%, and may make shrinkage 7 times slower. And we all know that size matters.

OTHER NATURAL SUPPLEMENTS

  • CILTEP® – CILTEP®, short for “Chemically Induced Long-Term Potentiation,” is an all-natural supplement created by Abelard Lindsay that can improve your mental performance.  It helps you be more focused, motivated, and retentive. CILTEP® works by optimizing levels of intracellular second messengers, which carry signals between your brain cells.
  • Choline – Choline is an essential micronutrient that helps your brain make the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which fosters intelligence and memory.  There are also some studies that suggest it may be protective against Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. You can find choline in supplements like Choline Force.
  • Upgraded™ Glutathione Force – Glutathione is the best antioxidant out there.  Your liver already makes its own supply, but with today’s constant environmental exposure to toxins, it’s good to help out your liver.  Supplementing Glutathione through a lipsomal form like Glutathione Force (other forms are destroyed by your gut before being absorbed) is a great idea because your brain makes more free radicals than any other organ in your body, and these free radicals accelerate  cell death.  Glutathione helps eliminate these free radicals and protects your brain from them, so it optimizes your brain function.
  • Upgraded™ Aging Formula – The foundation of Upgraded Aging Formula is oxaloacetate, or OAA.  This supplement works to protect the neurons in your brain from toxins, and there is also evidence that it can improve your short-term memory and help you think more clearly and efficiently.

8. SEX AND STRESS

Obviously, people prefer one over the other, but we’ve got some hacks that will help you in both areas. If you are still looking for ways to help your body relax consider toning the vagus nerve. We’ve got some fast and proven techniques to help calm your nervous system. Who knows, it might even get you in the mood.

9 . OTHER FUN HACKS FOR THE BULLETPROOF MIND

INVERSION THERAPY (HANGING UPSIDE DOWN)

It sounds weird, but hanging upside down is a great way to hack your brain.  Regular inverting trains your brain capillaries, making them stronger and more capable of bringing oxygen to your brain.  It’s pretty straightforward — more oxygen to your brain means better brain performance.  As an added bonus, after repeated inverting, the way your body regulates blood pressure actually changes.

USING LIGHT TO GET A MITOCHONDRIAL BOOST

You can use light to affect your mitochondrial function.  Just hold a red LED light to the place where you want a boost – your stomach, a sore muscle, or up your nose if you want to bump up your brain — for a few minutes, and you will experience more mitochondrial activity, meaning more cellular energy and better cellular communication.

10. QUANTIFY EVERYTHING

You know yourself better than anyone else. Monitor your sleep, your energy level, weight loss, moods etc. in an app or a journal. I can cite hundreds of studies but they don’t matter at all unless you feel the difference. Be your own guinea pig and experiment to see what biohacks help you feel Bulletproof or what from your routine leaves you feeling old, haggard and tired.
 
 
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Enjoy!

-Dave

 

Biohacking refers to the pursuit of human optimisation by improving your nutrition, sleep, exercise, stress management, environment and other factors.

Biohackers will often use technology to help collect data about their biology so they can measure the impacts of the various “hacks” used. Examples of this include heart rate variability monitors, sleep trackers, mood apps and auditory stimulation.

Dave Asprey, the creator of the Bulletproof blog and Bulletproof Coffee, defined biohacking in a 2014 TedX talk as “The art of controlling your biology and performance by changing the environment inside and outside your body.”

The main difference between general self-improvement and biohacking is that it’s a systems-based approach. This treats the body as a system with inputs such as food, sleep and exercise and outputs such as mental performance, physical performance. Biohackers improve the inputs to get better outputs.

Why would you become a biohacker? Goals can include things like better memory, increased focus, better physical performance in sports or longevity.

For the purposes of this guide, we’ll be referring to biohacking in the ‘wellness’ sense as mentioned above. There’s also a growing subset of biohackers known as “grinders” who use implants and chemicals to change their bodies. Examples of this include implantable RFID chips. This guide will not yet delve into this side of the definition.

Where to start with biohacking diagram

The beginner’s guide to biohacking: start here

What is the “quantified self” and how does it relate to biohacking?

Self quantification is the tracking of different personal metrics in order to obtain knowledge about yourself. You can then use this information to improve yourself.

Metrics can include your heart rate, mood, weight, hours slept, food and anything else you can measure about yourself or your environment. The quantified self movement often utilises technology to help capture these metrics, with popular examples including wearables such as the Oura ring and Fitbit, and apps like Daylio and Sleep Cycle to record mood and sleep respectively.

Self quantification is often used by biohackers to monitor the inputs and outputs of their human ‘system’ to see how they can improve themselves.

For example, a biohacker may log their mood and activities each day for a month, and then use this to find out what activities are making them unhappy, and what activities are making them happy. They could then (hopefully) remove the activities dragging them down, and do more of the activities that make them happy.

More information: The term ‘Quantified Self’ was actually coined by two journalists: Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly. They now run Quantified Self Labs, a company that runs conferences and other meetings for the quantified self community.

Where do I start with biohacking?

Biohacking and self-quantification can be tough for some to begin because the human body is so complex.

The easiest way to narrow it down is to first ask yourself what your goal is. For example, my own biohacking goals are to be more focused at work, perform better in my favourite sports, and finally increase my overall health and longevity.

Once you decide on this, you can look at some popular hacks in each area to begin with. As mentioned above, self-quantification is an important activity in this space because it can help biohackers learn how their hacks are actually impacting their body.

Because of this, before trying out a new change, some biohackers will take baseline measurements of the outputs they wish to improve and obtain more general information about their body. This is usually in the form of a DNA test like those offered from 23 and MeAncestry or MyHeritage, and/or blood tests from a medical professional or services like i-screen (Australia), or WellnessFX (USA).

Here’s a roundup of some popular hacks to conduct further research on, as well as some tools and apps to help with measuring the impact they have.

You can also start by attending a good biohacking conference or reading a great biohacking book.

Important: Some of the biohacking suggestions below and on the web in general for supplements, products, gadgets, foods and practices do not have large amounts of supporting research or evidence behind them. Be safe! Consult medical professionals before trying anything that could have an impact on your health, and be skeptical when evaluating the marketing claims of products which sound too good to be true. You don’t want to end up hurting yourself or wasting a lot of money on worthless products.

Biohacking cognitive abilities e.g focus, memory

How to measure:

  • Productive hours. You could measure this with RescueTime, which is an app and browser extension which categorises the time spent on your devices. It’ll give you a basic reading of the time you’ve spent on entertainment sites, social media etc. Hopefully a successful focus hack will see the number of productive hours increase while unproductive time spent decreases.
  • Mood. You can use Daylio if you use an Android, or Moodnotes or Reporter if you use an iPhone. This will help you log your mood and activities each day to evaluate later. You can then track your mood and activities after implementing a new hack.
  • Brain response. You can use brain training apps to see the before and after results of your biohacks. For example you could measure the time spent to complete an activity, or the score obtained.

Biohacks to consider:

  • Auditory stimulation. BrainFM is an app and web application that you can use to boost your focus, sleep quality or meditation (hence why it’s repeated below). According to the BrainFM website, they’re in the process of producing peer-reviewed studies about its effectiveness, but their pilot study claims it can increase attention and reduce mind wandering.
  • Nootropics. Nootropics, otherwise known as ‘smart drugs’, are substances that specifically work to increase mental function. These can be natural or synthetic, and can be either over-the-counter supplements or perscription drugs. The most widely known include caffeine and creatine, all the way through to Modafinil and Adderall. The Get Hapi blog has a great infographic talking about what makes a good nootropic, listing the properties of a good nootropic including: having at least three double-blind placebo-controlled studies showing safety and efficacy, and having few side effects or toxicity. Joe Rogan’s famed ‘Alpha Brain’ supplement from his company Onnit is an example of a nootropic. Other popular examples include Mind Lab Pro and Qualia Mind.
  • Meditation. You’ll see this repeated a few times on this list, but the benefits of meditation have been verified in many scientific studies. Some have shown that it reduces memory loss in older adults and can increase your attention span. There are many different ways to meditate. My favourite and one of the easiest for me personally is mindfulness meditation, where you simply become aware of your breath and then gently remind your mind to refocus on it whenever it wanders.
Biohacks image

Biohacking sleep

How to measure:

  • Sleep Cycle. Sleep Cycle is an app for both Android and Apple which tracks your sleep quality using your phone. You turn the app on and it then records your sleep quality and wakes you up at a period in your sleep cycle which is your lightest.
  • Oura ring. The Oura ring is an amazing piece of technology (at the time of writing I’m eagerly waiting for my ring to get here!) which tracks your sleep, resting heart rate, HRV and body temperature. It then stores this information and uploads it to the cloud where you can analyse it. What most excites me about the Oura ring is that it’s much smaller than many other wearables, and you can wear it while working out as it’s made from titanium and is water resistant.
  • Beddit. Beddit is a sleep monitor strap which you fit to your bed. It then records data such as your heart rate, snoring, breaths per minute and sleep quality. It was acquired by Apple in May 2017, so is now available through the Apple store.

Biohacks to consider:

  • Blue blocking glasses and Flux. Lighting has a big impact on the brain. Blue light in particular can disrupt melatonin production which stops our body from receiving the usual signal that it’s time to go to bed. Blue blocking glasses, as the name suggests, removes blue from entering your eyes. Flux is a free app which you can install on your phone, tablet or computer which removes the blue light from your devices after a certain time (mine is set to activate at about 7pm). New phones and tablets today will also include a ‘night shift’ setting which does the same.
  • BrainFM. As mentioned above, BrainFM has a sleep mode which they claim in their pilot study increases slow-wave sleep (SWS) activity by 24-29%. SWS is the sleep which move your daily memories into long term memories.
  • Cutting down on caffeine. After listening to Matthew Walker’s podcast with Kevin Rose about sleep, I realised just how much of an impact caffeine has on sleep quality. It has a half-life of five to seven hours, meaning that even if you have a coffee in the late morning or afternoon, a good portion of the caffeine could still be in your system come sleep time!  At the time of writing I’ve been caffeine-free for almost two weeks, and have felt a massive jump in my alertness and restfulness.

Biohacking your diet

How to measure:

  • Bodyfat percentage. There are a number of ways to measure body fat. Calipers can be a cheap and easy way to get your body fast tested, although they rely on the skill of the person using them. A more accurate method is a DEXA scan, which can cost between $40 – $100 depending on where you go.
  • Blood work. Companies like i-screen and iMEDICAL (Australia) and WelllnessFX (USA) offer a range of blood tests to help monitor the success of any dieting biohacks. With these services, you carry out your test at a regular blood collection center and then get the results sent to you.
  • Calorie counters and food logs. MyFitnessPal allows you to enter in the foods you eat each day to get a calorie amount.

Biohacks to consider:

  • Cut out sugar. Some research is starting to show that sugar has many negative effects on the body, including inflammation, increased risk of type 2 diabetes, less energy, and maybe even links to dementia and cancer. I have personally limited sugary drinks in my diet to one per week, and limit my desserts or sugary treats to once or twice per week (usually on the weekend).
  • Ketogenic diet. The ketogenic diet is a low-carb, high-fat diet. This in turn forces your body to start using fat as its main food source instead of carbs. Some studies have found ketogenic diets to have positive benefits on losing weight and some diseases. It’s a big change, so be sure to do plenty of research before trying it.
  • Intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting is simply when you fast for a certain interval. There are many different splits and ways to do intermittent fasting, such as the 16/8 fast, where you don’t eat for 16 hours and restrict your eating to the remaining 8 hours. In the past I’ve done this by having my last meal at around 9pm and then eating again at around lunchtime the next day. Intermittent fasting has been shown to have some benefits such as stabilising blood sugar, helping you to lose weight, reducing oxidative stress and more. As I mentioned above though, seek medical advice and conduct your own thorough research before making a change like this.

Biohacking your recovery after sports

How to measure:

  • Heart Rate Variability (HRV) monitor. Heart rate variability is the difference in the time interval between your heart beats. Contrary to what you would assume, it’s healthy to have irregular intervals between heart beats. Research has also shown that more regular time intervals can signal stress, while a healthy irregularity in intervals can signal a more relaxed state. A HRV monitor can take the form of a phone app, wearable like the Oura or Fitbit, or even a finger or earlobe monitor. By measuring your HRV every morning you can tailor the intensity of your daily activities to your state. If your HRV shows you’re in a stressed state for the day, it might be better to preference relaxing or low intensity activities for example.
  • Sleep monitor. As mentioned above, sleep monitoring could show you the quality of your sleep and whether or not you’re getting enough deep restorative sleep. You can then implement changes to improve it.
  • Mood logs. A mood log with one of the apps mentioned above could be useful to track how you feel each day to note whether or not you’re feeling recovered.
  • Exercise/activity logs. A simple spreadsheet could be used to track your performance in your chosen sport or activity to plot how you’re performing.

Biohacks to consider:

  • Recovery training. Trainers like Joel Jamieson also use active recovery methods like Tempo training, where you do 10 seconds of work at a moderate intensity (about 70% maximum intensity and speed) and then 60 seconds active rest period. Joel actually has a ‘rebound’ protocol for helping with recovery including recovery breathing and then going into other phases including the active recovery above.
  • Sauna. Joel Jamieson also recommends athletes with a HRV score above their regular baseline can use sauna treatments to help with recovery. Dr Rhonda Patrick’s sauna report has a great collection of research showing that sauna use is also beneficial for muscle growth.
  • BrainFM. BrainFM also has a setting for calm and meditation.
  • Meditation. World-renowned trainer Joel Jamieson recommends athletes with a HRV score below their baseline average can use relaxation strategies like meditation or even floating to help prevent overtraining.

Other biohacks to consider

Standing desks

One biohack I’m a huge fan of is using a standing desk. This is common news to many in the wellness space, but to quickly summarise, constant sitting has been linked to many health issues such as obesity, high blood pressure and more. Alternating between sitting and standing can reduce this. I now have a standing desk both at home and at work. Recent research in Australia has even estimated it could save $84 million in healthcare costs by reducing the risk of certain diseases.

Standing desk biohacks
Unless you’re on a strict budget, I highly recommend getting an affordable motorised standing desk like the IKEA Bekkant. This cost me just over $600 AUD and about an hour to put together.

Bulletproof/Butter coffee

Bulletproof or butter coffee is coffee with added butter and MCT oil. It’s claimed by Dave Asprey that the butter and MCT oil can provide a great source of ketones, which gives you sustained energy when compared to glucose. I love the taste of butter coffee and find it gives me a nice burst of energy, but it should be noted that many of the claimed benefits associated with it aren’t accepted by all. There’s a great analysis on Gizmodo about the claims which have been made about it.

Where are the biohacking communities on the internet?

Biohacking communities

There are quite a few thriving biohacking communities on the web if you’d like to get started. Below is a list of active communities depending on your platform of choice:

Facebook:

Reddit subreddits:

Forums:

What are some good biohacking blogs, social profiles and podcasts to pay attention to?

Below are some good places to start to get into biohacking. You can also read our guide to the best biohacking podcasts for more.

Tim Ferriss. Tim’s blog The 4-Hour Work Week has many tips and tricks for biohackers. Many of his books also have plenty of tips, primarily The 4-Hour Body and The 4-Hour Chef.

Ben Greenfield Fitness. Ben Greenfield is a biohacker I found out about from his appearances on the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast (1069 and 1120). He experiments with many crazy methods for increasing performance or health, but he also writes extremely detailed guides to important key areas such as sleep, anti-aging, self quantification and more.

Quantified Bob. Bob Troia is an entrepreneur, biohacker and quantified self proponent. Bob runs many experiments on himself to test hypotheses. He even offers API access to his data!

The Quantified Body. The Quantified Body podcast explores the use of data and technology to improve your health. It’s a great podcast and includes guests such as Ben Greenfield, Dom D’Agostino and Aubrey De Grey. Topics range from the ketogenic diet, fasting and meditation, to heart rate variability and wearables.

Smart Drug Smarts. This podcast primarily approaches biohacking from a nootropics perspective, but actually has great episodes on all facets of human optimisation. It’s also a high quality show, nicely produced and edited to cut out filler.

Kevin Rose. Kevin Rose is an entrepreneur most well known for creating Digg. He now also runs an awesome newsletter and podcast which is full of ideas for biohackers to explore. Notable guests include Dr Valter Longo on longevity, Tim Ferriss and Ben Greenfield.

Dr Rhonda Patrick. Dr Rhonda’s Found My Fitness blog is the headquarters for her podcast and genetic reports. It’s also where you can find her awesome reports on topics such as sauna use.

Bulletproof Blog. Dave Asprey has made plenty of contributions to the biohacking space, and his Bulletproof blog continues to give helpful tips for topics including diet, exercise and more.

Robb Wolf. A personal favourite author and blogger of mine because of his realistic applications of biohacking concepts, particularly relating to diet. Robb Wolf is a biochemist-turned blogger who is also a powerlifting champion, amateur kickboxer and BJJ purple belt. His blog and podcast covers many topics: paleo and keto diets; anti-inflammatory lifestyle tips; and fitness and sleep.

Chris Kresser. Chris Kresser is an author, acupuncturist and health blogger with years of experience. His popular blog cover topics including the paleo diet, ancestral health, gut health, low carb diets and much more. He also has some great books about alternative medicine and the paleo diet.

Healthline and Examine.com. When trying to evaluate the benefits of different supplements, foods and more I’ve found Healthline and Examine.com very helpful. Each site delves into the science and links to papers to help you dig deeper.

Mark’s Daily Apple. Mark Sisson, the creator of Mark’s Daily Apple, is one of the most respected members of the ancestral eating community. His blog offers clear explanations about the latest studies relating to health, and he’s my first port of call when wondering whether or not a food is actually healthy. His book The Primal Blueprint has a great outline of how to live healthily according to our ancestral roots.

Peter Attia. Dr Peter Attia focuses on longevity, and has a great blog and podcast with numerous in-depth articles covering topics including keto diets, exercise, metabolism and more. He also has a great podcast with Tim Ferriss and Joe Rogan which is where I learned about him.

The best biohacking books to read first

We’ve written a full list of the best biohacking books covering food, fasting, cold therapy, sleep, exercise and more, but to get you started here are our top three books to begin with:

Biohacker’s Handbook by Olli Sovijärvi, Jaakko Halmetoja and Teemu Arina

Biohacker’s Handbook is an excellent book for beginners and includes chapters on all of the key areas you should look into to optimise your health.

Beyond Training by Ben Greenfield

Beyond Training is written by Ben Greenfield, a well known biohacker and athlete with a very interesting history. It includes information and tips for improving your fitness, recovery, brain health, nutrition and lifestyle. 

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker PhD

Why we sleep book cover

Sleep is one of the most important ways to improve your health and performance. Why We Sleep explains what sleep does, why it’s important, and finally how you can improve your sleep, all using cutting-edge science as evidence.

What are some wearables to consider when starting in biohacking?

If you’re jumping into biohacking or evidence-based self improvement in 2018 and beyond, you’re lucky. There are a number of great wearables to help gather data at the time of writing. Here are two of the most popular and versatile picks:

Oura ring. The first version of the Oura ring was actually the result of a successful kickstarter campaign in 2015. The latest 2018 version of the ring is smaller than the original, and squeezes in the ability to monitor your resting heart rate, heart rate variability, sleep quality and body temperature. It’s also claimed to have a week-long battery life, is water resistant and scratch proof, and the small size makes it useful for constant wear. At the time of writing I’m still waiting on my ring, so stay tuned for the review.

Oura ring 
The new Oura Ring

Garmin Vivofit. The Garmin Vivofit came first in The Wirecutter’s roundup of best wearables for a reason. They liked this fitness tracker because it has an accurate continuous heart rate monitor, allows you to monitor heart rate variability and allows sleep tracking. According to The Wirecutter’s tests, it had up to seven days of battery life when its GPS function was turned off, and it’s also waterproof.

What are some apps to consider when starting to biohack?

Reporter. Reporter is a paid iPhone app which asks you questions throughout the day to record how you’re feeling and what you’re doing. You can customise the questions it asks, and questions can range from who you’re with to how many coffees you had today. The information can then be exported and combined with other data.

Daylio. Daylio is a free alternative to Reporter which is available for android users too. It allows you to log your mood and your daily activities. You can create custom activities too.

BrainFM. I’ve mentioned BrainFM a number of times above, and for good reason (I listened to it while I wrote this guide). It’s an app and browser application which allows you to select from three modes: focus, calm and sleep. It then uses algorithms to build a music track which is claimed to bring about cognitive states, such as focus. For example, in the focus setting, frequencies in the 12 – 18 Hz range are used. I personally find it useful for keeping me productive during tasks such as writing or researching.

Sleep Cycle. Sleep Cycle is an iPhone and Android app which turns your phone into a sleep tracker. It uses your phone’s accelerometer or microphone to analyse your sleep and track your natural cycles. You can then analyse the data to find out your sleep quality, including the time spent in deep sleep vs awake periods or periods of restlessness. It also has an alarm function where it wakes you up when you’re not in deep sleep to make your wakeup as smooth as possible. It’s available as a free app and has premium features too.

HRV4Training. This app uses your phone camera or compatible heart rate monitor to measure your HRV score. I used the phone camera method each morning for over a year, which basically requires you to put your finger on your camera for a short time to analyse. It requires a very dark room, so I would simply put the phone under the covers of my bed and analyse my HRV before I got out of bed. I am now replacing this with the Oura Ring.

Meditation apps. I personally don’t find guided meditation apps useful because I find the instructions to distract me from the act of meditating, but I’ve used Headspace in the past and found it somewhat useful when getting started. Kevin Rose also has a meditation app called Oak which seems great because the team is proactively looking to link the app with wearables such as the Oura ring. Unfortunately it’s only available on iOS currently.

Where to next?

If you’re interested in starting on your own biohacking journey, consider joining one of the communities above, or start following one of the personalities mentioned. Whatever your reason for jumping into the biohacking scene is, realise that you’re changing your body, so research any changes you’re considering to implement to make sure they’re safe and worth the money.

Did I miss anything?

Let me know in the comments section of this post if I should add anything in, or if you want to share parts of your own biohacking journey that’s cool too!

 

William Cole, D.C., IFMCP
 

One of the first questions I ask new patients is “How would you rate your health?” It’s a good ice breaker because it gets right to the core of their relationship with their body. The most common answer is: “I’m in good health, doc!” But when I look at their list of medications and health issues—the ones that made them want to set up an appointment with me in the first place—I see that they are hardly in “good health,” much less optimal.

What they usually mean is that they feel “all right.” They go to work, try to eat healthy, and get through life without any major problems. In reality, though, how we feel is a relatively poor predictor of our health. For the first time in human history, chronic disease has surpassed infectious disease, and these types of illnesses—like chronic heart problems, autoimmune diseases, and cancer—often go under-the-radar for years.

So what are great gauges for assessing your health? Well, I’m glad you asked! Because achieving optimal health is not only possible; it’s something that I see on a weekly basis in my functional medicine center. Here are the 19 signs you’ve achieved optimal health:

1. Your inflammation levels are in check.

Just about every health problem we see today has inflammation at its core. But this chronic, low-grade inflammation isn’t the same as the acute variety that we find in an injury, so pain isn’t always a clue that inflammation is brewing. The best way to see where your inflammation levels are at is lab tests, which will show you where your inflammation levels are right now.

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2. You have a balanced microbiome.

The delicate equilibrium of the trillions of bacteria in your gut and on your skin is super important in health optimization. Bacterial imbalances like SIBO and candida yeast overgrowth are increasingly common and very rarely looked at in mainstream medicine. I’m going to get personal here: Are you having at least one to two healthy bowel movements a day? Do you suffer from bloating, constipation, or diarrhea? Ideally, your poop should look like snakes, not like pebbles or soft-serve ice cream.

3. You have the “longevity personality traits.”

Some exciting research looked at the personality traits that are most commonly found in people who live long, healthy lives. See how many of these you possess:

  • Conscientiousness
  • Openness
  • Emotional stability
  • Friendliness
  • Emotional expression
  • Energy and stamina

I find that my patients who are lacking in these six categories tend to have a more difficult health journey.

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4. You are brain-fog free.

Muddled thinking and forgetting names and words are so common today that it’s considered a normal part of getting older. Instead of settling for brain fog, see it as a clue that something needs to be addressed. You have more brain cells than there are stars in the galaxy, and you need to take care of every single one. If you’re struggling with brain fog, here’s my guide to achieving mental clarity.

5. Your hormones are on point.

Hormones play a major role in the way we feel each day. And the beautifully balanced dance of the endocrine system is needed for you to truly thrive. Underlying hormone imbalances such as adrenal fatigue, thyroid problems, and estrogen and progesterone imbalances often go unchecked.

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6. Nutrient deficits are a thing of the past.

Your body is alive because of brilliant biochemistry, and if you are lacking in any of the essential nutrients, your cells can’t function the way they were designed to. Make sure you get a comprehensive nutrient work-up done, looking for common deficiencies such as vitamin D and magnesium and imbalances between copper and zinc. Your body will thank you!

7. You’ve addressed any problems with methylation.

Methylation is a super-big biochemical-highway system that makes your brain, gut, and hormones function optimally. Methylation impairments such as the MTHFR mutation are super common but widely not looked at in conventional medicine. If you aren’t actively supporting methylation, it’s time you read up on this key factor in your health.

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8. You don’t get “hangry.”

If you get irritable, weak, or shaky if you miss a meal, chances are your blood sugar is not balanced. Simply put, you can’t have optimal health if your blood sugar is not stable. Not sure if you have a blood sugar problem? Here are 15 signs to look out for—plus exactly what to do for better blood sugar health.

9. You have a healthy libido.

It still amazes me how ubiquitous low sex drive is. Just like brain fog and fatigue, low libido is just chalked up as a “normal” part of getting older or being busy. Just because these issues are common doesn’t make them normal! See issues like this as a sign that something is in need of your attention.

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10. Your weight is stable.

If you’re at optimal health, your weight should stay relatively stable and be healthy for your height and build. If your weight fluctuates significantly, something is typically off with your hormones or inflammation levels. And if it’s really hard for you to lose weight, looking at problems like leptin resistance is a good idea.

11. You’ve learned to love healthy food.

Clean eating is a way of life and not a “diet.” This is the transition that every successful patient of mine has to undergo. If you are truly healthy, you’ll see eating healthily not as a chore but as an exciting way to nourish your body with yummy food medicine.

12. You aren’t on any unnecessary medications.

Medications are frequently overprescribed and given as the only option for people struggling with health issues. I encourage anyone on prescribed medications to have an open, honest discussion with their doctor about their options. Here is a list of some common medications that I find to be overprescribed, including potential side effects that might affect your health.

13. You have clear skin.

Your skin is your largest organ, so what’s it telling you? Problems like acne breakouts, psoriasis, eczema, and rashes are a sign that something’s not working well. Looking at the gut-skin connection is usually my first consideration for people with skin issues.

14. You limit your sitting.

Sitting is the new smoking; haven’t you heard? Prolonged sitting is a major threat to your health, increasing the risk for a wide range of diseases. So get those standing desks out, or at the very least take frequent walking breaks!

15. You have a good relationship with stress.

Chronic stress affects just about every system of your body. You can be eating kale and kombucha all day long, but if you’re serving yourself a big slice of stress you’re counteracting all your healthy efforts. Making time for self-care and mindfulness is essential to optimal health.

16. You sleep through the night.

And even more importantly, you wake up feeling refreshed! We need to stop seeing sleep as a luxury and start seeing it as a necessity! Just one night of poor sleep will spike inflammation levels and mess your brain up (that’s a technical term, by the way). But seriously, if you are not getting eight to 10 hours of high-quality, uninterrupted sleep—you won’t achieve optimal health.

17. You don’t get winded doing simple activities.

If walking up stairs, carrying groceries, or getting dressed is a difficult chore, chances are you’re not in optimal health and it’s a sign that you need to invest a little more time and energy into your body.

18. You sweat six times a week.

With the sedentary nature of modern society, I’m a firm believer that most of us should be sweating about six times each week. Whether it’s a brisk walk in nature, yoga, or HIIT training, exercise does tons for your health—like increasing something called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which regenerates brain cells!

19. You don’t have insatiable cravings.

In functional medicine we see intense food cravings as a sign of imbalance. Hormonal imbalances, blood sugar issues, and emotional stressors can sabotage your good intentions and quest for optimal health.

Is stress keeping you from optimal health? Here’s how to manage stress without meditation and five things resilient people do differently.

Favorites

This page links to some of my favorite bookspodcastsspeeches, and more. If it’s on one of these lists, you can safely assume that I recommend it or have found it to be useful in my own life.

Book Summaries – My notes and summaries for dozens of books including each book summarized in three sentences or less.

Reading List – My personal reading list of the best books in a wide-range of categories including the best business booksbest self-help booksbest biographies, and more.

Best Podcasts – This is a list of my favorite podcasts, organized by category. It includes the top 10 podcasts right now, the best interview podcasts, and more. For each podcast, I also include some of my favorite episodes.

Great Speeches – I’ve spent years digging around for speeches that are insightful and interesting. This page covers my list of great speeches and talks that are not as famous or popular as they should be. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only place on the web where you can find all of these transcripts in one place.

Ultralight Travel Guide – a list of my favorite travel gear complete with detailed explanations for how I travel the world with one backpack and why I pack each piece of gear.

 

Goal setting is everywhere in our world. We set goals for our careers, our health, and our lives in general. It seems modern society is always encouraging us to think about the next milestone. However, what we don’t think about enough is the science and strategy of how to accomplish your goals. That’s what this guide is here to do.

Whether you’re setting personal goals or professional goals, this guide will explain everything you need to know. You can click the links below to jump to a particular section or simply scroll down to read everything. At the end of this page, you’ll find a complete list of all the articles I have written on goal setting.

I. What is Goal Setting?

II. How to Set Goals You’ll Actually Follow

III. How to Achieve Your Goals Consistently

Systems vs Goals for goal setting

I. What is Goal Setting?

Experts define goal setting as the act of selecting a target or objective you wish to achieve. Fair enough. That definition makes sense, but I think there is a much more useful way to think about setting goals.

What is Goal Setting?

Most goal setting exercises start with an overpaid consultant standing by a whiteboard and asking something like, “What does success look like to you? In very specific terms, what do you want to achieve?”

If we are serious about achieving our goals, however, we should start with a much different question. Rather than considering what kind of success we want, we should ask, “What kind of pain do I want?”

This is a strategy I learned from my friend and author, Mark Manson. What Mark has realized is that having a goal is the easy part. Who wouldn’t want to write a best-selling book or lose weight or earn more money? Everybody wants to achieve these goals.

The real challenge is not determining if you want the result, but if you are willing to accept the sacrifices required to achieve your goal. Do you want the lifestyle that comes with your quest? Do you want the boring and ugly process that comes before the exciting and glamorous outcome?

It’s easy to sit around and think what we could do or what we’d like to do. It is an entirely different thing to accept the tradeoffs that come with our goals. Everybody wants a gold medal. Few people want to train like an Olympian.

This brings us to our first key insight. Goal setting is not only about choosing the rewards you want to enjoy, but also the costs you are willing to pay.

Rudders and Oars

Imagine a small row boat. Your goals are like the rudder on the boat. They set the direction and determine where you go. If you commit to one goal, then the rudder stays put and you continue moving forward. If you flip-flop between goals, then the rudder moves all around and it is easy to find yourself rowing in circles.

However, there is another part of the boat that is even more important than the rudder: The oars. If the rudder is your goal, then the oars are your process for achieving it. While the rudder determines your direction, it is the oars that determine your progress.

This metaphor of the rudder and the oars helps clarify the difference between systems and goals. It is an important distinction that shows up everywhere in life.

  • If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.
  • If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.
  • If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.
  • If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and marketing process.

Goals are useful for setting the direction. Systems are great for actually making progress. In fact, the primary benefit of having a goal is that it tells you what sort of system you need to put in place. However, the system itself is what actually achieved the results. 

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II. How to Set Goals You’ll Actually Follow

Alright, now that we’ve discussed the tradeoffs and systems that come with goals, let’s talk about how to set goals you’ll actually follow.

There are three basic strategies I like to use when goal setting. Let’s talk about each one now.

1. Ruthlessly Eliminate Your Goals

Psychologists have a concept they refer to as “goal competition.”

Goal competition says that one of the greatest barriers to achieving your goals is the other goals you have. In other words, your goals are competing with one another for your time and attention. Whenever you chase a new goal, you have to pull focus and energy from your other pursuits. This is basically The Four Burners Theory in action. When you turn one burner up, you have to turn others down.

Now, there is good news. One of the fastest ways to make progress on your goals is to simply press pause on less important things and focus on one goal at a time. Sometimes you just need to reorganize your priorities a little bit and suddenly progress comes much more quickly because you are now fully committed to a goal that was only getting moderate attention previously.

This is an important insight. Typically, when we fail to reach our goals, we think something was wrong with our goal or our approach. Experts tell us, “You need to think bigger! Pick a dream that is so big it will motivate you every day.” Or we tell ourselves, “If only I had more hours in the day!”

These excuses cloud the bigger issue. What often looks like a problem of goal setting is actually a problem of goal selection. What we really need is not bigger goals, but better focus. You need to choose one thing and ruthlessly eliminate everything else. In the words of Seth Godin, “You don’t need more time, you just need to decide.”

Our lives are like rose bushes. As a rose bush grows, it creates more buds than it can sustain. If you talk to an experienced gardener, they will tell you that rose bushes need to be pruned to bring out the best in both their appearance and their performance. In other words, if you want a rose bush to thrive, then you need to cut away some of the good buds so the great ones can fully blossom.

Our goals are similar. They need to be consistently pruned and trimmed down. It’s natural for new goals to come into our lives and to get excited about new opportunities—just like it’s natural for a rose bush to add new buds. If we can muster the courage to prune away a few of our goals, then we create the space we need for the remaining goals to fully blossom. Full growth and optimal living require pruning.

I’ve written about a variety of strategies for getting your priorities in order and focusing on one thing at a time, including:

Take a look at those strategies and try out one that resonates with you.

2. Stack Your Goals

Research has shown that you are 2x to 3x more likely to stick to your goals if you make a specific plan for when, where, and how you will perform the behavior. For example, in one study scientists asked people to fill out this sentence: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].”

Researchers found that people who filled out this sentence were 2x to 3x more likely to actually exercise compared to a control group who did not make plans for their future behavior. Psychologists call these specific plans “implementation intentions” because they state when, where, and how you intend to implement a particular behavior. This finding has been repeated across hundreds of studies and has been found to increase the odds that people will start exercising, begin recycling, stick with studying, and even stop smoking.

One of my favorite ways to utilize this finding is with a strategy I call habit stacking. To use habit stacking, just fill out this sentence:

After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].

Here are some examples:

  • Meditation: After I brew my morning coffee, I will meditate for one minute.
  • Pushups: Before I take my morning shower, I will do 10 pushups.
  • Flossing: After I set my toothbrush down, I will floss my teeth.
  • Gratitude: Before I eat dinner, I will say one thing I am grateful for that day.
  • Networking: After I return from my lunch break, I will send one email to someone I want to meet.

Habit stacking works well because you not only create a specific plan for when and where you will implement your goals, but also link your new goals to something you are already doing each day. You can read more on how to stack habits and set triggers for your goals in my popular guide, Transform Your Habits.

I find this to be a helpful way to bridge the gap between goals and systems. Our goals tell us what we want to achieve while our systems are the process we follow each day. Habit stacking and implementation intentions help us move from the goal in our heads to the specific process that will make it a reality.

3. Set an Upper Bound

Whenever we set goals, we almost always focus on the lower bound. That is, we think about the minimum threshold we want to hit. The implicit assumption is, “Hey, if you can do more than the minimum, go for it.”

  • An individual might say, “I want to lose at least 5 pounds this month.”
  • An entrepreneur might say, “I want to make at least 10 sales calls today.”
  • An artist might say, “I want to write at least 500 words today.”
  • A basketball player might say, “I want to make at least 50 free throws today.”

But what would it look like if we added an upper bound to our goals and behaviors?

  • “I want to lose at least 5 pounds this month, but not more than 10.”
  • “I want to make at least 10 sales calls today, but not more than 20.”
  • “I want to write at least 500 words today, but not more than 1,500.”
  • “I want to make at least 50 free throws today, but not more than 100.”

sustain your habits and set an upper bound when goal setting

In many areas of life, there is a magical zone of long-term growth. You want to push hard enough to make progress, but not so much that it is unsustainable. This is where setting an upper limit can be useful. Upper limits make it easier for you to sustain your progress and continue showing up.

This is especially critical in the beginning. Whenever you set a new goal and begin working toward it, the single most important thing is showing up. In the beginning, showing up is even more important than succeeding because if you don’t build the habit of showing up, then you’ll never have anything to improve in the future.

III. How to Achieve Your Goals Consistently

Effective goal setting requires consideration of the system that surrounds you. Too often, we set the right goals inside the wrong system. If you’re fighting your system each day to make progress, then it’s going to be really hard to make consistent progress.

There are all kinds of hidden forces that make our goals easier or harder to achieve. You need to align your environment with your ambitions if you wish to make progress for the long-run. Let’s discuss some practical strategies for doing just that.

How to Align Your Environment With Your Goals

Although most of us have the freedom to make a wide range of choices at any given moment, we often make decisions based on the environment we find ourselves in. For example, if I wanted to do so, I could drink a beer as I write this guide. However, I am currently sitting at my desk with a glass of water next to me. There are no beers in sight. Although I possess the capability to get up, walk to my car, drive to the store, and buy a beer, I probably won’t because I am surrounded by easier alternatives. In this case, taking a sip of water is the default decision, the easy decision.

Similarly, many of the decisions we make in our professional and personal lives are shaped by the options that surround us.

  • If you sleep with your phone next to your bed, then checking social media and email as soon as you wake up is likely to be the default decision.
  • If you walk into your living room and your couches and chairs all face the television, then watching television is likely to be the default decision.
  • If you keep alcohol in your kitchen, then drinking consistently is more likely to be the default decision.

Of course, defaults can be positive as well.

  • If you keep a dumbbell next to your desk at work, then pumping out some quick curls is more likely to be the default decision.
  • If you keep a water bottle with you throughout the day, then drinking water rather than soda is more likely to be the default decision.
  • If you place floss in a visible location (like next to your toothbrush), then flossing is more likely to be the default decision.

Scientists refer to the impact that environmental defaults can have on our decision making as choice architecture. This has an important impact when it comes to achieving goals. Whether or not you achieve your goals in the long-term has a lot to do with what types of influences surround you in the short-term. It’s very hard to stick with positive habits in a negative environment.

Here are a few strategies I have found useful when trying to design better default decisions into my life:

Simplicity. It is hard to focus on the signal when you’re constantly surrounded by noise. It is more difficult to eat healthy when your kitchen is filled with junk food. It is more difficult to focus on reading a blog post when you have 10 tabs open in your browser. It is more difficult to accomplish your most important task when you fall into the myth of multitasking. When in doubt, eliminate options.

Visual Cues. In the supermarket, placing items on shelves at eye level makes them more visual and more likely to be purchased. Outside of the supermarket, you can use visual cues like the Paper Clip Method or the Seinfeld Strategy to create an environment that visually nudges your actions in the right direction.

Opt-Out vs. Opt-In. There is a famous organ donation study that revealed how multiple European countries skyrocketed their organ donation rates: they required citizens to opt-out of donating rather than opt-in to donating. You can do something similar in your life by opting your future self into better habits ahead of time. For example, you could schedule your yoga session for next week while you are feeling motivated today. When your workout rolls around, you have to justify opting-out rather than motivating yourself to opt-in.

How to Measure Your Goals

Another key to making long-term progress on your goals is measurement. The human mind loves to receive feedback. One of the most motivating things we can experience is evidence of our progress. This is why measurement is so critical for effective goal setting. By measuring your results, you get insight on whether or not you are making progress.

The things we measure are the things we improve. It is only through numbers and clear tracking that we have any idea if we are getting better or worse. Here are a few of the measurable goals I’ve implemented:

The trick is to realize that counting, measuring, and tracking is not about the result. Measure to discover, to find out, to understand. Measure to see if you are showing up. Measure to see if you’re actually spending time on the things that are important to you.

Here are some of my favorite techniques for setting measurable goals:

Give them a try and see which one you prefer.

Where to Go From Here

I hope you found this guide on goal setting useful. If you’re looking for more ideas on how to set and achieve goals, feel free to browse the full list of articles below.

All Goal Setting Articles

This is a complete list of articles I have written on goal setting. Enjoy!

FOOTNOTES
  1. Thanks to Scott Adams for his Wall Street Journal article, which influenced my ideas on systems and goals.

 

 

Focus and concentration can be difficult to master. Sure, most people want to learn how to improve focus and boost concentration. But actually doing it? We live in a noisy world and constant distractions can make focus difficult.

Luckily, this page contains the best ideas and top research on how to get and stay focused. We will break down the science behind sharpening your mind and paying attention to what matters. Whether you’re looking to focus on your goals in life or business, this page should cover everything you need to know.

You can click the links below to jump to a particular section or simply scroll down to read everything. At the end of this page, you’ll find a complete list of all the articles I have written on focus.

I. Focus: What It Is and How it Works

II. How to Focus and Increase Your Attention Span

III. Mind-Hacks for Getting Focused

I. Focus: What It Is and How it Works

First things first. What is focus, really? Experts define focus as the act of concentrating your interest or activity on something. That’s a somewhat boring definition, but there is an important insight hiding inside that definition.

What is Focus?

In order to concentrate on one thing you must, by default, ignore many other things.

Here’s a better way to put it:

Focus can only occur when we have said yes to one option and no to all other options. In other words, elimination is a prerequisite for focus. As Tim Ferriss says, “What you don’t do determines what you can do.”

Of course, focus doesn’t require a permanent no, but it does require a present no. You always have the option to do something else later, but in the present moment focus requires that you only do one thing. Focus is the key to productivity because saying no to every other option unlocks your ability to accomplish the one thing that is left.

Now for the important question: What can we do to focus on the things that matter and ignore the things that don’t?

Before we talk about how to get started, let’s pause for just a second. If you’re enjoying this article on focus, then you’ll probably find my other writing on performance and human behavior useful. Each week, I share self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research through my free email newsletter.

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Why Can’t I Focus?

Most people don’t have trouble with focusing. They have trouble with deciding.

What I mean is that most healthy humans have a brain that is capable of focusing if we get the distractions out of the way. Have you ever had a task that you absolutely had to get done? What happened? You got it done because the deadline made the decision for you. Maybe you procrastinated beforehand, but once things became urgent and you were forced to make a decision, you took action.

Instead of doing the difficult work of choosing one thing to focus on, we often convince ourselves that multitasking is a better option. This is ineffective.

Here’s why…

The Myth of Multitasking

Technically, we are capable of doing two things at the same time. It is possible, for example, to watch TV while cooking dinner or to answer an email while talking on the phone.

What is impossible, however, is concentrating on two tasks at once. You’re either listening to the TV and the overflowing pot of pasta is background noise, or you’re tending to the pot of pasta and the TV is background noise. During any single instant, you are concentrating on one or the other.

Multitasking forces your brain to switch your focus back and forth very quickly from one task to another. This wouldn’t be a big deal if the human brain could transition seamlessly from one job to the next, but it can’t.

Have you ever been in the middle of writing an email when someone interrupts you? When the conversation is over and you get back to the message, it takes you a few minutes to get your bearings, remember what you were writing, and get back on track. Something similar happens when you multitask. Multitasking forces you to pay a mental price each time you interrupt one task and jump to another. In psychology terms, this mental price is called the switching cost.

Switching cost is the disruption in performance that we experience when we switch our focus from one area to another. One study, published in the International Journal of Information Management in 2003, found that the typical person checks email once every five minutes and that, on average, it takes 64 seconds to resume the previous task after checking your email.

In other words, because of email alone, we typically waste one out of every six minutes.

The myth of multitasking is that it will make you more effective. In reality, remarkable focus is what makes the difference. (Image inspired by Jessica Hagy.)
The myth of multitasking is that it will make you more effective. In reality, remarkable focus is what makes the difference. (Image inspired by Jessica Hagy.)

 

II. How to Focus and Increase Your Attention Span

Let’s talk about how to overcome our tendency to multitask and focus on one thing at a time. Of the many options in front of you, how do you know what to focus on? How do you know where to direct your energy and attention? How do you determine the one thing that you should commit to doing?

decision-making-tree

Warren Buffett’s “2 List” Strategy for Focused Attention

One of my favorite methods for focusing your attention on what matters and eliminating what doesn’t comes from the famous investor Warren Buffett.

Buffett uses a simple 3-step productivity strategy to help his employees determine their priorities and actions. You may find this method useful for making decisions and getting yourself to commit to doing one thing right away. Here’s how it works…

One day, Buffett asked his personal pilot to go through the 3-step exercise.

STEP 1: Buffett started by asking the pilot, named Mike Flint, to write down his top 25 career goals. So, Flint took some time and wrote them down. (Note: You could also complete this exercise with goals for a shorter timeline. For example, write down the top 25 things you want to accomplish this week.)

STEP 2: Then, Buffett asked Flint to review his list and circle his top 5 goals. Again, Flint took some time, made his way through the list, and eventually decided on his 5 most important goals.

STEP 3: At this point, Flint had two lists. The 5 items he had circled were List A, and the 20 items he had not circled were List B.

Flint confirmed that he would start working on his top 5 goals right away. And that’s when Buffett asked him about the second list, “And what about the ones you didn’t circle?”

Flint replied, “Well, the top 5 are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”

To which Buffett replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”

I love Buffett’s method because it forces you to make hard decisions and eliminate things that might be good uses of time, but aren’t great uses of time. So often the tasks that derail our focus are ones that we can easily rationalize spending time on.

One goal

This is just one way to narrow your focus and eliminate distractions. I’ve covered many other methods before like The Ivy Lee Method and The Eisenhower Box. That said, no matter what method you use and no matter how committed you are, at some point your concentration and focus begin to fade. How can you increase your attention span and remain focused?

There are two simple steps you can take.

Measure Your Results

The first thing you can do is to measure your progress.

Focus often fades because of lack of feedback. Your brain has a natural desire to know whether or not you are making progress toward your goals, and it is impossible to know that without getting feedback. From a practical standpoint, this means that we need to measure our results.

We all have areas of life that we say are important to us, but that we aren’t measuring. That’s a shame because measurement maintains focus and concentration. The things we measure are the things we improve. It is only through numbers and clear tracking that we have any idea if we are getting better or worse.

The tasks I measured were the ones I remained focused on.

Unfortunately, we often avoid measuring because we are fearful of what the numbers will tell us about ourselves. The trick is to realize that measuring is not a judgment about who you are, it’s just feedback on where you are.

Measure to discover, to find out, to understand. Measure to get to know yourself better. Measure to see if you’re actually spending time on the things that are important to you. Measure because it will help you focus on the things that matter and ignore the things that don’t.

Focus on the Process, Not the Event

The second thing you can do to maintain long-term focus is to concentrate on processes, not events. All too often, we see success as an event that can be achieved and completed.

Here are some common examples:

  • Many people see health as an event: “If I just lose 20 pounds, then I’ll be in shape.”
  • Many people see entrepreneurship as an event: “If we could get our business featured in the New York Times, then we’d be set.”
  • Many people see art as an event: “If I could just get my work featured in a bigger gallery, then I’d have the credibility I need.”

Those are just a few of the many ways that we categorize success as a single event. But if you look at the people who stay focused on their goals, you start to realize that it’s not the events or the results that make them different. It’s the commitment to the process. They fall in love with the daily practice, not the individual event.

What’s funny, of course, is that this focus on the process is what will allow you to enjoy the results anyway.

  • If you want to be a great writer, then having a best-selling book is wonderful. But the only way to reach that result is to fall in love with the process of writing.
  • If you want the world to know about your business, then it would be great to be featured in Forbes magazine. But the only way to reach that result is to fall in love with the process of marketing.
  • If you want to be in the best shape of your life, then losing 20 pounds might be necessary. But the only way to reach that result is to fall in love with the process of eating healthy and exercising consistently.
  • If you want to become significantly better at anything, you have to fall in love with the process of doing it. You have to fall in love with building the identity of someone who does the work, rather than merely dreaming about the results that you want.

Focusing on outcomes and goals is our natural tendency, but focusing on processes leads to more results over the long-run.

 

III. Concentration and Focus Mind-Hacks

Even after you’ve learned to love the process and know how to stay focused on your goals, the day-to-day implementation of those goals can still be messy. Let’s talk about some additional ways to improve concentration and make sure you’re giving each task your focused attention.

How to Improve Concentration

Here are few additional ways to improve your focus and get started on what matters.

Choose an anchor task. One of the major improvements I’ve made recently is to assign one (and only one) priority to each work day. Although I plan to complete other tasks during the day, my priority task is the one non-negotiable thing that must get done. I call this my “anchor task” because it is the mainstay that holds the rest of my day in place. The power of choosing one priority is that it naturally guides your behavior by forcing you to organize your life around that responsibility.

Manage your energy, not your time. If a task requires your full attention, then schedule it for a time of day when you have the energy needed to focus. For example, I have noticed that my creative energy is highest in the morning. That’s when I’m fresh. That’s when I do my best writing. That’s when I make the best strategic decisions about my business. So, what do I do? I schedule creative tasks for the morning. All other business tasks are taken care of in the afternoon. This includes doing interviews, responding to emails, phone calls and Skype chats, data analysis and number crunching. Nearly every productivity strategy obsesses over managing your time better, but time is useless if you don’t have the energy you need to complete the task you are working on.

Never check email before noon. Focus is about eliminating distractions. Email can be one of the biggest distractions of all. If I don’t check email at the beginning of the day, then I am able to spend the morning pursuing my own agenda rather than reacting to everybody else’s agenda. That’s a huge win because I’m not wasting mental energy thinking about all the messages in my inbox. I realize that waiting until the afternoon isn’t feasible for many people, but I’d like to offer a challenge. Can you wait until 10AM? What about 9AM? 8:30AM? The exact cutoff time doesn’t matter. The point is to carve out time during your morning when you can focus on what is most important to you without letting the rest of the world dictate your mental state.

Leave your phone in another room. I usually don’t see my phone for the first few hours of the day. It is much easier to do focused work when you don’t have any text messages, phone calls, or alerts interrupting your focus.

Work in full screen mode. Whenever I use an application on my computer, I use full screen mode. If I’m reading an article on the web, my browser takes up the whole screen. If I’m writing in Evernote, I’m working in full screen mode. If I’m editing a picture in Photoshop, it is the only thing I can see. I have set up my desktop so that the menu bar disappears automatically. When I am working, I can’t see the time, the icons of other applications, or any other distractions on the screen. It’s funny how big of a difference this makes for my focus and concentration. If you can see an icon on your screen, then you will be reminded to click on it occasionally. However, if you remove the visual cue, then the urge to be distracted subsides in a few minutes.

Remove all tasks that could distract from early morning focus. I love doing the most important thing first each day because the urgencies of the day have not crept in yet. I have gone a little far in this regard in that I have even pushed my first meal off until about noon each day. I have been intermittent fasting for three years now (here are some lessons learned), which means that I typically eat most of my meals between 12PM and 8PM. The result is that I get some additional time in the morning to do focused work rather than cook breakfast.

Regardless of what strategy you use, just remember that anytime you find the world distracting you, all you need to do is commit to one thing. In the beginning, you don’t even have to succeed. You just need to get started.

Where to Go From Here

I hope you found this short guide on focus useful. If you’re looking for more ideas on how to improve your focus and concentration, feel free to browse the full list of articles below.

All Focus Articles

This is a complete list of articles I have written on focus. Enjoy!

By 1918, Charles M. Schwab was one of the richest men in the world.

Schwab was the president of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the largest shipbuilder and the second-largest steel producer in America at the time. The famous inventor Thomas Edison once referred to Schwab as the “master hustler.” He was constantly seeking an edge over the competition. 

One day in 1918, in his quest to increase the efficiency of his team and discover better ways to get things done, Schwab arranged a meeting with a highly-respected productivity consultant named Ivy Lee.

Lee was a successful businessman in his own right and is widely remembered as a pioneer in the field of public relations. As the story goes, Schwab brought Lee into his office and said, “Show me a way to get more things done.”

“Give me 15 minutes with each of your executives,” Lee replied.

“How much will it cost me,” Schwab asked.

“Nothing,” Lee said. “Unless it works. After three months, you can send me a check for whatever you feel it’s worth to you.” 

The Ivy Lee Method

During his 15 minutes with each executive, Ivy Lee explained his simple daily routine for achieving peak productivity:

  1. At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
  2. Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
  3. When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
  4. Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
  5. Repeat this process every working day.

The strategy sounded simple, but Schwab and his executive team at Bethlehem Steel gave it a try. After three months, Schwab was so delighted with the progress his company had made that he called Lee into his office and wrote him a check for $25,000.

A $25,000 check written in 1918 is the equivalent of a $400,000 check in 2015. 

The Ivy Lee Method of prioritizing your to-do list seems stupidly simple. How could something this simple be worth so much?

What makes it so effective?

Portrait of Ivy Ledbetter Lee from the early 1900s. (Photographer: Unknown)

On Managing Priorities Well

Ivy Lee’s productivity method utilizes many of the concepts I have written about previously.

Here’s what makes it so effective:

It’s simple enough to actually work. The primary critique of methods like this one is that they are too basic. They don’t account for all of the complexities and nuances of life. What happens if an emergency pops up? What about using the latest technology to our fullest advantage? In my experience, complexity is often a weakness because it makes it harder to get back on track. Yes, emergencies and unexpected distractions will arise. Ignore them as much as possible, deal with them when you must, and get back to your prioritized to-do list as soon as possible. Use simple rules to guide complex behavior.

It forces you to make tough decisions. I don’t believe there is anything magical about Lee’s number of six important tasks per day. It could just as easily be five tasks per day. However, I do think there is something magical about imposing limits upon yourself. I find that the single best thing to do when you have too many ideas (or when you’re overwhelmed by everything you need to get done) is to prune your ideas and trim away everything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Constraints can make you better. Lee’s method is similar to Warren Buffett’s 25-5 Rule, which requires you to focus on just 5 critical tasks and ignore everything else. Basically, if you commit to nothing, you’ll be distracted by everything.

It removes the friction of starting. The biggest hurdle to finishing most tasks is starting them. (Getting off the couch can be tough, but once you actually start running it is much easier to finish your workout.) Lee’s method forces you to decide on your first task the night before you go to work. This strategy has been incredibly useful for me: as a writer, I can waste three or four hours debating what I should write about on a given day. If I decide the night before, however, I can wake up and start writing immediately. It’s simple, but it works. In the beginning, getting started is just as important as succeeding at all.

It requires you to single-task. Modern society loves multi-tasking. The myth of multi-tasking is that being busy is synonymous with being better. The exact opposite is true. Having fewer priorities leads to better work. Study world-class experts in nearly any field—athletes, artists, scientists, teachers, CEOs—and you’ll discover one characteristic runs through all of them: focus. The reason is simple. You can’t be great at one task if you’re constantly dividing your time ten different ways. Mastery requires focus and consistency.

The bottom line? Do the most important thing first each day. It’s the only productivity trick you need. 

If you want to learn more about the routines and habits of Olympic gold medalists, award-winning artists, business leaders, life-saving physicians, and star comedians, check out my book Atomic Habits. 

FOOTNOTES

  1. Charles M. Schwab, the president of Bethlehem Steel, is not related to the American banking and brokerage magnate, Charles R. Schwab, who is the founder of the Charles Schwab Corporation. What are the odds that two unrelated men named Charles Schwab each end up with a personal net worth over $500 million? Pretty good apparently.
  2. It is unbelievable how hard it is to track down an original source for this story. Most stories incorrectly list the year of Lee and Schwab’s meeting as 1905 or so, but 1918 seems to be the accurate year as listed in pages 118-119 of “The Unseen Power: Public Relations: A History” by Scott M. Cutlip. Among the many books that mention this story are The Time Trap by R. Alec Mackenzie and Mary Kay: You Can Have It All by Mary Kay. The earliest reference I have tracked down for the story is from the 1960s. If you are aware of any earlier sources, please let me know and I will update this article accordingly.
  3. When calculating the equivalent value of a $25,000 check from 1918 in 2015 terms, I came up with results between $390,000 and $428,000 depending on which methods and numbers are used to calculate inflation. Thus, $400,000 seems like a reasonable middle ground.
  4. Thanks to UJ Ramdas who originally told me about the story of Charles M. Schwab and Ivy Lee. And to Cameron Herold, who shared the story with UJ.

 

BY LEO BABAUTA

Have your ever lost yourself in your work, so much so that you lost track of time? Being consumed by a task like that, while it can be rare for most people, is a state of being called Flow.

In my experience, it’s one of the keys to happiness at work, and a nice side benefit is that it not only reduces stress but increases your productivity. Not bad, huh?

When I wrote about the Magical Power of Focus, I promised to write more about how to achieve Flow, a concept that is very much in vogue right now and something most of us have experienced at one time or another.

Today we’ll take a look at what Flow is, why it’s important, and how to achieve it on a regular basis for increased productivity and happiness at work.

What is Flow?

Put simply, it’s a state of mind you achieve when you’re fully immersed in a task, forgetting about the outside world. It’s a concept proposed by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, and these days you’re likely to read about it on blogs and in all kinds of magazines.

When you’re in the state of Flow, you:

  • are completely focused on the task at hand;
  • forget about yourself, about others, about the world around you;
  • lose track of time;
  • feel happy and in control; and
  • become creative and productive.

One thing I love about Flow is that it takes the very Zen concept of being completely in the moment, and applies it to work tasks. It’s a concept I’ve talked a lot about here on Zen Habits — being in the moment, focusing completely on a single task, and finding a sense of calm and happiness in your work. Flow is exactly that.

Why is Flow Important?

I believe the ability to single-task (as opposed to multi-task) is one of the keys to true productivity. Not the kind of productivity where you knock off 20 items from your to-do list (although that can be satisfying), where you’re switching between tasks all day long and keep busy all the time.

The true productivity I mean is the kind where you actually achieve your goals, where you accomplish important and long-lasting things. As a writer, that might mean writing one or two important and memorable articles rather than 20 or 50 unimportant ones that people will forget 5 minutes after reading them. It means getting key projects done rather than answering a bunch of emails, making a lot of phone calls, attending a bunch of meetings, and shuffling paperwork all day long. It means closing key deals. It means quality instead of quantity.

And once you’ve learned to focus on those kinds of important projects and tasks, Flow is how you get them done. You lose yourself in those important and challenging tasks, and instead of being constantly interrupted by minor things (calls, emails, IMs, coworkers, etc.), you are able to focus on the tasks long enough to actually complete them.

And by losing yourself in them, you enjoy yourself more. You reduce stress while increasing quality output. You get important stuff done instead of just getting things done. You achieve things rather than just keeping busy.

Flow is one of the keys to all of that.

How to Achieve Flow and Happiness in Your Work

So how do you achieve this mystical state of being? Do you need to meditate or chant anything? No, you don’t (although meditation can improve your ability to concentrate). And Flow is anything but mystical — it’s very practical, and achieving it isn’t mysterious.

It can take practice, but you’ll get better at it. Here are the key steps to achieving and benefiting from Flow:

  1. Choose work you love. If you dread a task, you’ll have a hard time losing yourself in it. If your job is made up of stuff you hate, you might want to consider finding another job. Or consider seeking projects you love to do within your current job. At any rate, be sure that whatever task you choose is something you can be passionate about.
  2. Choose an important task. There’s work you love that’s easy and unimportant, and then there’s work you love that will make a long-term impact on your career and life. Choose the latter, as it will be a much better use of your time, and of Flow.
  3. Make sure it’s challenging, but not too hard. If a task is too easy, you will be able to complete it without much thought or effort. A task should be challenging enough to require your full concentration. However, if it is too hard, you will find it difficult to lose yourself in it, as you will spend most of your concentration just trying to figure out how to do it — either that, or you’ll end up discouraged. It may take some trial and error to find tasks of the appropriate level of difficulty.
  4. Find your quiet, peak time. This is actually two steps grouped into one. First, you’ll want to find a time that’s quiet, or you’ll never be able to focus. For me, that’s mornings, before the hustle of everyday life builds to a dull roar. That might be early morning, when you just wake, or early in the work day, when most people haven’t arrived yet or are still getting their coffee and settling down. Or you might try the lunch hour, when people are usually out of the office. Evenings work well too for many people. Or, if you’re lucky, you can do it at any time of the day if you can find a quiet spot to work in. Whatever time you choose, it should also be a peak energy time for you. Some people get tired after lunch — that’s not a good time to go for Flow. Find a time when you have lots of energy and can concentrate.
  5. Clear away distractions. Aside from finding a quiet time and place to work, you’ll want to clear away all other distractions. That means turning off distracting music (unless you find music that helps you focus), turning off phones, email and IM notifications, Twitter and Growl, and anything else that might pop up or make noise to interrupt your thoughts. I also find it helpful to clear my desk, even if that means sweeping miscellaneous papers into a folder to be sorted through later. Of course, these days there isn’t anything on my desk, but I didn’t always work like this. A clear desk helps immensely.
  6. Learn to focus on that task for as long as possible. This takes practice. You need to start on your chosen task and keep your focus on it for as long as you can. At first, many people will have difficulty, if they’re used to constantly switching between tasks. But keep trying, and keep bringing your focus back to your task. You’ll get better. And if you can keep your focus on that task, with no distractions, and if your task has been chosen well (something you love, something important, and something challenging), you should lose yourself in Flow.
  7. Enjoy yourself. Losing yourself in Flow is an amazing thing, in my experience. It feels great to be able to really pour yourself into something worthwhile, to make great progress on a project or important task, to do something you’re passionate about. Take the time to appreciate this feeling (perhaps after the fact — it’s hard to appreciate it while you’re in Flow).
  8. Keep practicing. Again, this takes practice. Each step will take some practice, from finding a quiet, peak time for yourself, to clearing distractions, to choosing the right task. And especially keeping your focus on a task for a long time. But each time you fail, try to learn from it. Each time you succeed, you should also learn from it — what did you do right? And the more you practice, the better you’ll get.
  9. Reap the rewards. Aside from the pleasure of getting into Flow, you’ll also be happier with your work overall. You’ll get important stuff done. You’ll complete stuff more often, rather than starting and stopping frequently. All of this is hugely satisfying and rewarding. Take the time to appreciate this, and to continue to practice it every day.

“To be able to concentrate for a considerable time is essential to difficult achievement.” – Bertrand Russell

 
 

 

BY LEO BABAUTA

Have your ever lost yourself in your work, so much so that you lost track of time? Being consumed by a task like that, while it can be rare for most people, is a state of being called Flow.

In my experience, it’s one of the keys to happiness at work, and a nice side benefit is that it not only reduces stress but increases your productivity. Not bad, huh?

When I wrote about the Magical Power of Focus, I promised to write more about how to achieve Flow, a concept that is very much in vogue right now and something most of us have experienced at one time or another.

Today we’ll take a look at what Flow is, why it’s important, and how to achieve it on a regular basis for increased productivity and happiness at work.

What is Flow?

Put simply, it’s a state of mind you achieve when you’re fully immersed in a task, forgetting about the outside world. It’s a concept proposed by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, and these days you’re likely to read about it on blogs and in all kinds of magazines.

When you’re in the state of Flow, you:

  • are completely focused on the task at hand;
  • forget about yourself, about others, about the world around you;
  • lose track of time;
  • feel happy and in control; and
  • become creative and productive.

One thing I love about Flow is that it takes the very Zen concept of being completely in the moment, and applies it to work tasks. It’s a concept I’ve talked a lot about here on Zen Habits — being in the moment, focusing completely on a single task, and finding a sense of calm and happiness in your work. Flow is exactly that.

Why is Flow Important?

I believe the ability to single-task (as opposed to multi-task) is one of the keys to true productivity. Not the kind of productivity where you knock off 20 items from your to-do list (although that can be satisfying), where you’re switching between tasks all day long and keep busy all the time.

The true productivity I mean is the kind where you actually achieve your goals, where you accomplish important and long-lasting things. As a writer, that might mean writing one or two important and memorable articles rather than 20 or 50 unimportant ones that people will forget 5 minutes after reading them. It means getting key projects done rather than answering a bunch of emails, making a lot of phone calls, attending a bunch of meetings, and shuffling paperwork all day long. It means closing key deals. It means quality instead of quantity.

And once you’ve learned to focus on those kinds of important projects and tasks, Flow is how you get them done. You lose yourself in those important and challenging tasks, and instead of being constantly interrupted by minor things (calls, emails, IMs, coworkers, etc.), you are able to focus on the tasks long enough to actually complete them.

And by losing yourself in them, you enjoy yourself more. You reduce stress while increasing quality output. You get important stuff done instead of just getting things done. You achieve things rather than just keeping busy.

Flow is one of the keys to all of that.

How to Achieve Flow and Happiness in Your Work

So how do you achieve this mystical state of being? Do you need to meditate or chant anything? No, you don’t (although meditation can improve your ability to concentrate). And Flow is anything but mystical — it’s very practical, and achieving it isn’t mysterious.

It can take practice, but you’ll get better at it. Here are the key steps to achieving and benefiting from Flow:

  1. Choose work you love. If you dread a task, you’ll have a hard time losing yourself in it. If your job is made up of stuff you hate, you might want to consider finding another job. Or consider seeking projects you love to do within your current job. At any rate, be sure that whatever task you choose is something you can be passionate about.
  2. Choose an important task. There’s work you love that’s easy and unimportant, and then there’s work you love that will make a long-term impact on your career and life. Choose the latter, as it will be a much better use of your time, and of Flow.
  3. Make sure it’s challenging, but not too hard. If a task is too easy, you will be able to complete it without much thought or effort. A task should be challenging enough to require your full concentration. However, if it is too hard, you will find it difficult to lose yourself in it, as you will spend most of your concentration just trying to figure out how to do it — either that, or you’ll end up discouraged. It may take some trial and error to find tasks of the appropriate level of difficulty.
  4. Find your quiet, peak time. This is actually two steps grouped into one. First, you’ll want to find a time that’s quiet, or you’ll never be able to focus. For me, that’s mornings, before the hustle of everyday life builds to a dull roar. That might be early morning, when you just wake, or early in the work day, when most people haven’t arrived yet or are still getting their coffee and settling down. Or you might try the lunch hour, when people are usually out of the office. Evenings work well too for many people. Or, if you’re lucky, you can do it at any time of the day if you can find a quiet spot to work in. Whatever time you choose, it should also be a peak energy time for you. Some people get tired after lunch — that’s not a good time to go for Flow. Find a time when you have lots of energy and can concentrate.
  5. Clear away distractions. Aside from finding a quiet time and place to work, you’ll want to clear away all other distractions. That means turning off distracting music (unless you find music that helps you focus), turning off phones, email and IM notifications, Twitter and Growl, and anything else that might pop up or make noise to interrupt your thoughts. I also find it helpful to clear my desk, even if that means sweeping miscellaneous papers into a folder to be sorted through later. Of course, these days there isn’t anything on my desk, but I didn’t always work like this. A clear desk helps immensely.
  6. Learn to focus on that task for as long as possible. This takes practice. You need to start on your chosen task and keep your focus on it for as long as you can. At first, many people will have difficulty, if they’re used to constantly switching between tasks. But keep trying, and keep bringing your focus back to your task. You’ll get better. And if you can keep your focus on that task, with no distractions, and if your task has been chosen well (something you love, something important, and something challenging), you should lose yourself in Flow.
  7. Enjoy yourself. Losing yourself in Flow is an amazing thing, in my experience. It feels great to be able to really pour yourself into something worthwhile, to make great progress on a project or important task, to do something you’re passionate about. Take the time to appreciate this feeling (perhaps after the fact — it’s hard to appreciate it while you’re in Flow).
  8. Keep practicing. Again, this takes practice. Each step will take some practice, from finding a quiet, peak time for yourself, to clearing distractions, to choosing the right task. And especially keeping your focus on a task for a long time. But each time you fail, try to learn from it. Each time you succeed, you should also learn from it — what did you do right? And the more you practice, the better you’ll get.
  9. Reap the rewards. Aside from the pleasure of getting into Flow, you’ll also be happier with your work overall. You’ll get important stuff done. You’ll complete stuff more often, rather than starting and stopping frequently. All of this is hugely satisfying and rewarding. Take the time to appreciate this, and to continue to practice it every day.

“To be able to concentrate for a considerable time is essential to difficult achievement.” – Bertrand Russell

 
 

 

By Kendra Cherry 

 

In psychology, self-actualization is achieved when you’re able to reach your full potential. Being truly self-actualized is considered the exception rather than the rule since most people are working to meet more pressing needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Psychologist Abraham Maslow outlines what is known as a hierarchy of needs, representing all the various needs that motivate human behavior. The hierarchy is often displayed as a pyramid, with the lowest levels representing basic needs and more complex needs located at the top of the pyramid.

At the peak of this hierarchy is self-actualization. The hierarchy suggests that when the other needs at the base of the pyramid have been met, you can then focus your attention on this pinnacle need of self-actualization.

Self-Actualized People Have Peak Experiences

Self-actualized person

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One characterization of self-actualization is having frequent peak experiences.

According to Maslow, a peak experience involves

“Feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of ecstasy and wonder and awe, the loss of placement in time and space with, finally, the conviction that something extremely important and valuable had happened, so that the subject was to some extent transformed and strengthened even in his daily life by such experiences.”

In other words, these are moments of transcendence in which a person emerges feeling changed and transformed.

They Possess Self-Acceptance and a Democratic World View

Hands coming together.

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Self-actualized people accept themselves and others as they are. They tend to lack inhibition and are able to enjoy themselves and their lives free of guilt.

Not only do self-actualized people fully accept themselves, they also embrace other people for who they are. Other individuals are treated the same regardless of background, current status, or other socio-economic and cultural factors.

They Are Realistic

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Another major characteristic of self-actualized people is a sense of realism. Rather than being fearful of things that are different or unknown, the self-actualized individual is able to view life as it unfolds both logically and rationally.

They Tend to Be Problem-Centered

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Self-actualized individuals are often motivated by a strong sense of personal ethics and responsibility. They enjoy applying their problem-solving skills to real-world situations and they like helping other people improve their own lives.

 

The Self-Actualized Person Is Autonomous

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Self-actualized people also tend to be very ​independent. They don’t conform to other people’s ideas of happiness or contentment. This original perspective allows the individual to live in the moment and appreciate the beauty of each experience.

 

They Enjoy Solitude and Privacy

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Self-actualized individuals value their privacy and enjoy solitude. While they also love the company of others, taking time to themselves is essential for their personal discovery and cultivating their individual potential.

 

They Have a Philosophical Sense of Humor

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Self-actualized individuals generally have a thoughtful sense of humor. They’re able to enjoy the humor in situations and laugh at themselves, but they don’t ridicule or joke at the expense of another person’s feelings.

 

Self-Actualized People Are Spontaneous

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Another characteristic of self-actualized people is a tendency to be open, unconventional, and spontaneous. While these people are able to follow generally accepted social expectations, they don’t feel confined by these norms in their thoughts or behaviors.

 

They Fully Enjoy the Journey, Not Just the Destination

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While self-actualized people have concrete goals, they don’t see things as simply a means to an end. The journey toward achieving a goal is just as important and enjoyable as actually accomplishing the goal.